Life Begins At Forty…

When I was a young kid in the middle Sixties, I thought anyone above forty was old! And even in my twenties, it was the general assumption that once you hit forty, you were no longer a youngster. You became a newbie in the middle-aged group.

Most girls would get a college degree, a B.A or BSc, even if they weren’t thinking of being ‘working women’ and marriage was their goal. A degree would ensure an educated groom from a good family.

Girls who wanted to work before they got married studied for a professional B.Ed degree and/or a Masters too, to bolster their B.A degree. As did some who were practical and wanted to add qualifications against a stretch of misfortune, where they might have to work after marriage. This assured them of a teaching job and a better salary. These girls usually married a little later… 24-25 years old.

There were not many educated girls who remained unmarried in their late twenties. At least that’s how it was in the northern states of Punjab, Haryana. My elder sisters were in this last category. They were career-oriented girls and got married in their late twenties, just before hitting their thirties.

I was in the first category. I had some professions in mind that I aspired to, but my father didn’t approve of any. He gave me a couple of professional options, which I shot down. So I stubbornly dug my heels in and said I didn’t want to do anything beyond a Bachelor’s degree. He said I should go in for an additional degree to augment that. A bachelor’s degree in education. A B.Ed degree. I told him the last thing I wanted to be was a teacher!

Long story short, I was the girl in the first category who got married as soon as she passed out of college. I was lost when it came to domesticity. I hadn’t any experience in domestic chores, except for helping mummy now and then. And then, I was a mom at twenty-one! Totally ignorant about motherhood. That’s when I realized the wisdom of my elder sisters.

All I can be grateful for is that I was an observer and learned a lot just by observing my mother and grandmother. Also, I was very communicative. I would ask them about the why, how, and what of many things they did or didn’t do. And I always hung their gems of wisdom on the hangers in my mind to refer to and keep whichever proved its worth.

I had ignored the wisdom my father was trying ever so hard to knock into my nineteen year old head. I couldn’t get it then, I couldn’t see the sense in what he was saying. Why he wouldn’t let me do whatever I had chosen. Years later, in my forties, I knew why he had counselled me to change direction to other careers.

Why is it so hard to pass on wisdom to others? Why do we find it hard to accept wise counsel too? Counsel we can lean on later in life when destiny knocks on the door. Fortunately, I had kept all the wisdom I had been given rather than throwing it out before testing it. I rifled through all the pearls on the hangers in my mind-closet.

Coming back to the forties. By the time my elder son reached his fortieth year, the scene about age had changed. Hitting FORTY was now a huge celebration. ‘Life begins at forty’ had taken a totally different color. At our time forty meant the start of winding down.

I can recall talking to my husband about planning and saving for the future. And we were in our early thirties then. I’d caution him that life happens, as he was on tours traveling by car three-four days a week. Anything could happen. What would I do? I wouldn’t know what to do!

He smiled and reassured me he had it in mind and would start thinking about it when he got to forty. That was how we considered the forties in our day. It was the time to shift our thoughts to plan our after-retirement life. In the forties, we’d be in a pre-seniors batch! Life wasn’t “beginning” for us. It was the start of the downtrend.

We didn’t think much about the wisdom offered to us by people wiser in experience than us until we reached our fortieth year.

But I didn’t share his views. I began to almost nag him about it. I wanted to do something concrete so we could secure things for the future, earlier than later. And then freely enjoy our lives and the relative freedom we’d get as the boys grew older and more independent.

I was thinking mid to late forties, well before the official standard retirement age, which was sixty years. I was thinking vacays for just the two of us. Dinners for two. I guess I was thinking more progressively than our middle class society did then.

Retirement for most in our social circle and in the family too meant – Sit at home. Be on-hand and on-call grandparents (if you have grandkids). Become super religious. Attend as many religious functions as possible until you feel a shining halo above your head, and then you could preach to all and sundry. Be staid. And “act your age” whatever that meant.

I didn’t subscribe to any of these silly notions and I didn’t bother about what anyone thought or labelled me. I wanted to start living our twosome lives with some more to it than just the grind of dull routine even during the weekends or festival holidays. The forties held more promise for me than what the others thought of it. I was looking forward to it with a lot of hope and expectations. It held a promise of new chapters beyond just run-of-the-mill stuff. Adventure, new experiences, new learnings, growth, and more freedom.

So, he was waiting for his fortieth to build a strong, secure future. And in a way so was I looking forward to it. I was looking forward to a more secure future and more freedom. But life has too many lemons and curve balls. It tossed the lemons and curve balls. Eight months before his fortieth birthday, my husband died on one of his tours. Three massive heart attacks, within a few hours, took him away at the young age of thirty-nine. I couldn’t even be with him at the time of his death.

I was thirty-six. No knowledge of the workings of the big, wide world. Cocooned and safe in my little world all these years. From parental protection to a hubby’s protection. Everything had been taken care of for me. I only ran the house. The only time I went out alone was to work in a school and back home. I had lots of bookish knowledge no real, practical knowledge of how things are in the other sectors of the world nor how to handle them outside of the home and school. All theory.

For me, Life Begins At Forty, stands true, in a very different way. It took me two-three years after his death to find my bearings. I floundered, struggled, fell, got up, and kept moving forward. I was able to keep the home fires burning. Keep my boys’ education going. Keep wolves in sheep clothing away. Keep both my jobs going and money coming in. Learn how the world runs. And how I had to change. And also deal with how friends and family can change.

Coincidently, the age forty kicked in at this point of my life. And in truth, my life really began at forty. I found my bearings, confidence, and the strength to rebuild my life even better after it fell apart only in the forties.

I learned about trust… how and who to trust. I was learning bitter truths on the way. I was also growing along the journey. This is when I fell back on the wisdom that had been given to me when I was a girl. It helped me to understand better what each meant. It also opened my eyes to the hypocrisy of some whom I trusted implicitly. I was gaining experiential knowledge and experiential wisdom.

The hubs had been at the helm always. I was in the backseat when it came to matters outside the home. I was the Queen of the home. It was my “Queendom”! Earlier I was carried along, I was not in the driver’s seat. Now I was steering the ship. Choppy waters, gales, smooth runs, breakdowns. Through it all, I was in the driver’s seat, and I had to keep the home running. It meant dealing with everything.

It was scary because I knew nothing about this new position that was dumped on me out of the blue. I had no time to crib or cry about fate and how unfair life was and all that. I had no time to dwell on the faithlessness of those I relied on and trusted for help and support. The wisdom that had been shared with me kept me going trusting in God’s grace and mercy. And I learned more about faith through these years.

Yes, life begins at forty. This period found my life rebuilding even better after crumbling around me. Wisdom tells us that life is a book which has many chapters. We write some chapters and life dictates some. Are we writing a good story? Are we rebuilding and making the best use of the experiences, and the opportunities that come our way? We have failures. We have losses. We make stupid mistakes. Wrong judgments. Are we using wisdom to set the wrongs right? Are we being wise in the choices we make? Are we writing a glorious story of faith and trust in God? Are we making good friends along the way? Are we being the good neighbor or friend we ourselves want to have?

I realized how important wisdom is. Wisdom that was shared with me, and that I have picked up from reading, from stories, from sermons, the Bible, and some wise people I’ve had the good fortune to meet. This is why we share our stories and wisdom. Someone might need to read them. People can read our experiences and stories and find something similar to their situations in a way that helps them.

I didn’t want to be a teacher. I didn’t study for my B.Ed despite my father insisting on it. But, eventually, I took up a teacher’s job when my youngest started going to school. In those days it wasn’t important to have a degree in education. If one was proficient in their teaching subject and had studied the subject for their Bachelor’s degree, they got the job. I taught English.

But a few years before my husband died, I got this strong desire to get a Master’s degree in English. He was totally against it. But the gut feeling inside was too strong and I went ahead and with the help of a friend in church and an English professor they knew, I got into the Master’s program for private study candidates who were working. My husband didn’t like it. He thought I’d not be able to see to the home and needs of the family with a job and studies to boot. I assured him nothing would change at home. And I made sure it didn’t by studying after domestic work was done for the day. This meant I was studying while I was cooking and then late into the night when the family went to bed. I used to study from after ten in the night to 2.00 in the morning. I’d be up at 5.00 am to start the day… breakfast, packed lunches for the boys, lunch for the family and then I’d rush off to work where I had to check in at 7.00 am! Long story short… I passed with a good second division. Two years of hard work. My husband was surprised and confessed that he had allowed me to go ahead because he thought I’d flunk and give up studying further!

A year later, I wanted to do my B.Ed. He wasn’t for that either. I went ahead anyway. I’d have to first give an entrance exam. As usual, nothing changed in the running of the home… nor the hubs’ guests who we’d have for a meal, dinner usually, quite often. I never fussed and never failed to serve delicious meals. I studied as I had done for my Masters. When the results came in, I couldn’t find my roll number in the result sheet. I couldn’t believe it! I knew I couldn’t have failed this exam. Then a colleague at school congratulated me as did the Principal and Vice Principal when I went to school the next day. I was surprised and told them that I thought I had failed because I didn’t find my roll number in the Pass List. They asked me if I had checked the section of toppers. No, I hadn’t! Well, that’s where I was among the toppers! I got through that with flying colors. Then I applied for the main course.

Before the course started, hubby dear had died. I was shattered. My whole world had crumbled. I was scared. But I didn’t give up. The very situation that had devastated our lives, gave me the courage, strength, and determination to go on and complete my B.Ed studies even as I went through the turmoil of settling into a new life which put me, an ignorant driver, in the driver’s seat.

Well, this wasn’t the only challenge. I found that for my B.Ed exams, I didn’t have any notes in English. I mean even Psychology was in Hindi! I am not very good in Hindi but not so bad either. I was working and now playing both the roles of man and woman of the house. Meaning, I had to see to all that he used to see to… paying electricity bills, rent to the landlord, groceries, any job that needed professional help – electrician, plumber, gardener etc. So little time for study.

I didn’t give up. I sat and translated the notes into English, writing them in registers. Then I’d study them. Along with that went my teachers work too of checking note books etc. and exam papers. I never gave up even when I’d be in pain… headache, body ache.

Final day arrived. I went to write the exam. I was so nervous that when the doors of the examination Hall opened, I felt like puking and I just made it out into the garden outside the hall and puked my guts out near a bushy plant. Someone gave me water from her water bottle to gargle and wash my mouth.

I sat down to write my exam and forgot about fear, nervousness. I wrote and wrote and felt relieved when I handed in my papers. But it wasn’t over yet. I had to go for a practical exam in a higher secondary school. I wasn’t nervous about this. I had to make some charts etc., I conducted a class there while two examiners sat and assessed my teaching skills.

I got First Div. marks in both written and practical. I was thrilled. And so grateful to God for giving me the will power, strength and ability to go through this.

Looking back, I realize how important it was that I get these qualifications. If I hadn’t gone through the difficulties and around the spokes my hubby put in my way to dissuade further education, how would I have looked after my boys. The rules had changed already in the Education Department. All teachers had to have a professional teaching degree, and for higher classes, a Masters as well. I had both, and just in time.

Turning 40 is often a big symbolic point in one’s life. In the 20s we feel we can do anything, but as the 30s progress we become more mature emotionally, and in terms of work tend to focus. These two things combined: emotional maturity and career focus, often produced an explosion of self-purpose in our 40s.

-Tom Butler Bowden

A Prophecy & A Bowl of Butternut Soup

“When you say something or sing something enough times, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s almost as casting spells. I don’t mean in the necessarily flighty, ‘I’m going to buy a cloak with a hood now, way.'” –Feist

I don’t shush predictions and ‘prophecies’ if they’re made sincerely and by a person whom I trust not to be dramatic or religiously overenthusiastic! My mother-in-law was such a person who wouldn’t make much of hocus-pocus prophecies. But here’s one prophecy that gave me many thoughtful, doubtful moments before I found what to believe.

Once more, I dig up a story from my journal. Meet Rosaline Thomas, my MIL.

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The Prophecy

I discovered two things in the past few days: First, the truth of a prophecy, that’s such a biblical word, but then, I guess it fits in this case and the second, the deliciousness of a butternut squash soup.

To my mind, butternut squash is a variety of ‘kadu’ aka a pumpkin in India. I like kadu as a vegetable, cooked Indian style. I also like the kadu halwa (a dessert) my mother used to make. A laborious task which she’d undertake after I’d begged her almost on my knees! So, when my daughter-in-law said she would make a butternut squash soup for dinner, I balked.

I could imagine a kadu mashed up in a soup, what I just couldn’t imagine was me drinking it. She reassured me it was yummmm… yes, she stretched the yumminess. I thought it was simply to psych me into drooling. Only the night would tell.

But I’ve meandered. To come back to the prophecy.

Once upon a time, as stories began when I was a kid, my mother-in-law, who I shall refer to as Ma Rose going forward, told me about a lady who would visit the family home in Barmer; very often out of the blue.

She was a very religious woman; old but healthy and mobile and with the gift to predict things. These things she predicted were referred to as prophecies because she was anchored in the faith. On one such unexpected visit, she told Ma Rose that she would die when one member of Ma’s family would go into the Lord’s service. She made this prophecy some years before I heard it from Ma.

Both Ma and I contemplated the meaning of this. Not because it was hard to understand the prophecy, but because we couldn’t find more than one promising candidate who qualified as a servant for the Lord’s work in the future.

This person, one of her grandsons, was a teenager then. He was quite keen on listening to Ma Rose’s religious talks and was a regular churchgoer. In short, totally religious unlike all the other youngsters his age. But as time went by, our hope in him diminished. I told Ma Rose that the old lady must have been a bit off the mark this time. She refused to accept that. I shut up. Just my mouth, not my thoughts! 

Then came the day when one of the granddaughters, her daughter’s child, decided to marry a boy who was all set to become a priest. Ah! The prophetic words resurfaced in our conversations with renewed strength. Ma told me, rather triumphantly, that the old girl was not off the mark. We were off the mark! We hadn’t thought of the girls.

Now, one was going into the Lord’s service and the time for the prophecy to come true was drawing near. It made me uncomfortable to discuss Ma’s demise, in the near future with her (she tended to make it nearer than it was) in such an objective manner. So I tried to drill holes in her theory. For quite obvious reasons, it was clear her enthusiasm to prove the old lady right had blinded her to the fact that her grandchild was not going into the Lord’s service. She was only going to marry someone who was going to serve in the church.

But Queen Victoria, as I and my hubby would refer to her in private, could not be influenced or side-tracked so easily.

“It’s the same thing,” she said with regal finality that discouraged all arguments. Again I zipped my lip and only my lip!

Ma Rose passed away a few years later. Her said grandchild’s husband changed direction. The priest moved out of pastoring a flock and became the head of a Bible College instead while she continued her teaching job. Ma Rose had gone, but the prophecy and its veracity remained a point of thought. It didn’t fit in, not to my mind at least. The pieces didn’t fall into place so the picture wasn’t complete. At least not in the way she had thought it was.

Many years later, I learned that the only other granddaughter, her son’s child, had become a pastor! The pieces of the puzzle fell into place. I will have to take the story further to complete the picture.

This grandchild, who I’ll refer to as ‘R’, was a simple girl with no college education. She was brought up, mainly, in a small town. She stayed at home and did the domestic chores. Later, she did a beautician’s course and worked in a cosmopolitan city. But that career was short-lived. She returned to her small town home and domesticity. I remembered ‘R’ as a lively, witty girl but not inclined to intellectual pursuits. So hearing she was heading a church in a big city, came as a huge surprise.

Anyway, this news soon got buried with so many other things piling up, it no longer held my attention. But not for long. For some unknown reason, my thoughts back-tracked to the prophecy again; to Ma Rose and to the many conversations we’d had over the years. And I had a eureka moment! Stay with me a wee bit longer, as even now, I have to catch my breath by the revelation.

On the last night, before she died, Ma Rose was talking to ‘R’. It was getting late, past midnight, so ‘R’ told her to rest and try to sleep. Ma agreed and asked her to put her hand in hers. She held ‘R’s hand and closed her eyes. After some time, ‘R’ went off to sleep with her hand in her grandmother’s hand.

When she awoke, her hand was still in Ma’s hand only Ma’s hand was cold. Very cold. Ma had passed away peacefully in her sleep, and in passing on had also passed on the prophecy to the most unlikely person in her family!

I had been off the mark; disinclined to believe without the shadow of doubt. She had believed implicitly. Five months after Ma Rose died, ‘R’ was married to a widower with two sons. This was the first step towards the fulfillment of the prophecy and building a new relationship with Jesus.

The marriage, from what I heard, became a bit rocky. Whatever happened, it made ‘R’ turn to the church and God in a way she had never dwelt on the Word before. The thing is that the most unlikely person was chosen to do God’s work. She became a pastor.

Now I understand. It was a prophecy… it holds its aura… it holds that strength and firmness… it holds that belief!

Phew! Talk about soup for the soul!

The Butternut Squash Soup

And here comes the butternut squash soup. I peeked into the pan as M, my daughter-in-law, stirred the creamy, lovely, sunshine yellow broth around. I have to admit, it was inviting. Not a reaction I had expected. Soon, I was impatient to taste it.

She took her time cooking it just right, pouring it into the cups, dropping in the croutons… and I took the first spoonful. Yummmmmm…….I went… Had I been psyched?!!

Here’s the picture of the first cup of ‘kadu’ soup that made me a die-hard fan and advocate of its goodness. I am a new butternut squash soup nut! For my Indian friends; it’s just another kind of ‘kadu’ in a soup made with an Indian touch. 🙂

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My Sister Makes A Wish!

“If you are a dreamer come in.

If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,

A hoper, a pray-er, a magic-bean-buyer,

If you’re a pretender come sit by my fire

For we have some flax-golden tales to spin,

Come in!

Come in!”

Shel Silverstein

 

They say, ‘if wishes were horses beggars would ride.’ Not always, I say. Getting a wish sometimes isn’t quite the “beggar’s horse ride.”

My sister made a wish… and she got it! It all started as a game and became a terrifying reality. But I must start at the beginning.

Daddy had decided to put in his papers and take an early, premature retirement. Premature it was; he was only forty-five and had a long way to go. But his heart was set on dedicating his time totally to evangelism.

So in 1965, he left the service and we moved to his hometown in Punjab. He was going home; we were going to Never Land! Of course, the descriptions differed in each of our minds. I am not sure what Never Land signified for my siblings, for me, it was rich in every way: experiences, adventure, fantasy, challenges, and fun.

My eldest sister didn’t fancy it much I guess because as soon as she completed her Senior Cambridge, she came to the “village” from the boarding school in the hills, and dashed off to Delhi to train as a nurse. Daddy wanted her to join the college in Ludhiana and get her Bachelor’s degree. She didn’t want to stay in Punjab. She had mummy’s support and she joined her nurse’s training course in a hospital in the capital city.

This left four of us kids (my younger brother had arrived by then) with Grandpa, Grandma, Mummy, Daddy, the cattle; cow and buffalo, chickens, rabbits and a dog named Tommy; fruit trees, open spaces, and rolling fields around us.

It was a marvelous new life for my elder brother and me because we had no school to attend (the new session and admissions would start in two months), and we spent the whole day exploring the surroundings. Shooting at pigeons and whatever flew or ran or crawled with our catapults!

I don’t remember how my elder sister spent most of her time, but there were rare occasions when she would join us to spend the afternoons in our treetop getaway. We would carry up some books, a few munchies with lemonade, and while away the lazy afternoons swaying gently in our hammocks that were way up the tree! We had to climb up a ladder placed against the trunk of the Tali tree to get to the hammocks.

Looking back, I admit, it was dicey! Climbing from the ladder into a swaying hammock more than eight feet from the ground wasn’t safe. I was barely ten years old then. Anyway, life was different then. Kids played and survived many outdoor games and activities; things parents wouldn’t allow their kids to do now.

To get back to the story, on one such rare day, the three of us were sitting around in the vegetable garden behind our house and sharing our wildest dreams, wishes, and fantasies. As we tried to outdo ourselves in our imaginings; she blurted out that she would love to see two planes right above us in active combat. My brother and I guffawed. We knew she was right off her track because she wasn’t into these sorts of imaginings. She was very ‘girlie-girlie’ and didn’t dream of such stuff. Besides, we were not at war with anyone. However, we agreed that she had indeed outdone us in ‘bizarre’.

Not much later, we heard the roar of planes and looked up. It wasn’t unusual to see these fighter planes in practice sorties, as the Air Force base wasn’t far in airspace terms. There were two Gnats chasing a plane we couldn’t identify. It was bigger than the Gnats. My brother and I were intrigued. By then, they were almost over us and he yelled.

“It’s an attack! Run! That’s a Pakistani plane. Look at the insignia.”

It happened in the twinkling of an eye. Before we could even digest what he was saying. The air was rent with staccato gunshots. I ran and hid behind a Jasmine bush nearby and watched. The other two stood transfixed and watched. There was a dogfight raging in the sky above us.

I can recall the feeling even today. It was all in the extreme… the fear, the excitement, and the amazement. Then, in front of our eyes, the Pakistani plane took a fatal shot and burst into flames. It careened wildly and began a wobbly descent, thankfully, away from ‘our’ airspace and crashed in a field close to where we were.

Our yelling had brought out my uncle who was on one of his breaks between joining ship again. He wouldn’t believe us because by then the plane had gone down, but the trail of black smoke convinced him. He ran out with the others who appeared from nowhere in an instant. We followed; my brother and I.

I was slower and lagged behind. My uncle who was way ahead, saw me coming and stopped me at a distance. All I saw was the plane burning with huge, angry flames, and a mob shouting and yelling curses and abuses at the dead pilot. It was a terrible sight. But not as terrible as what was to follow. We were at war with Pakistan.

I peered at my sister, later that night, when we were huddled in the trench and our town lay trembling as some flak from attacks on the Air Force base and the G.T highway strayed and fell around us. She smiled wanly. I knew she was thinking what I was thinking but I had to say it.

“Couldn’t you wish for something better,” I shouted to be heard through the cotton plugs in her ears.

She wouldn’t reply. Her teeth were clenched on the handkerchief in her mouth. I stuffed mine back into my mouth as Daddy yelled a warning. A bomb exploded two-hundred and fifty meters away.

This was just the beginning… 

 

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